Thursday, August 02, 2007

National Institutes of Health Reorganizes Autism Research Program

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) unveiled a plan August 2 to "intensify its efforts to find the causes of autism and identify new treatments" for autism spectrum disorders (ASD).

The announcement means that the government research agency will consolidate two existing programs into a single research effort called the Autism Centers of Excellence (ACE). The NIH announced a set of grants under this program (see more information below), and said there would be another round of grants awarded in 2008. The announcement does not say how much money the government is awarding through these research grants; I have sent a question to the NIH and will let you know what I learn.

You can read the NIH press release here.

The NIH said the Autism Centers of Excellence will include both research centers designed to "foster collaborations between teams of specialists, who share the same facility so that they can address a particular research problem in depth." And example given: "specialists in brain imaging might collaborate with behavior researchers to determine if a particular behavior is associated with a difference in brain structure. They might also consult with a team of genetics experts to find a hereditary basis for their observations."

The research networks involve researchers at many locations around the nation, all working on a single question. This is valuable, the NIH said, because these many researchers can recruit volunteers around the country to participate in a study.

Data gathered by these research funding recipients will go to the National Database for Autism Research, a web-based application housed at the NIH for autism researchers around the world to share information.

National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Elias Zerhouini said the consolidation of two existing programs -- the Studies to Advance Autism Research and Treatment, and Collaborative Programs of Excellence in Autism -- is "needed to capitalize on the gains made by the NIH research effort in autism."

That makes sense, but Autism Bulletin readers may also recall that during last year's long debate before Congress passed the $945 million Combating Autism Act to boost autism research funding and services, there was a lot of discussion about reforming the way the NIH goes about researching autism and other medical conditions. (Joe Barton of Texas, a key Republican committee chairman at the time, sought to block the bill used his desire to reform NIH as an argument. See past coverage here and here.)

The Grant Recipients

The NIH published a list of six Autism Centers of Exellence grant award recipients. They reflect an interesting variety of research efforts going on around the country. The recipients are below, with information provided by the National Institutes of Health:

— Edwin H. Cook (University of Illinois at Chicago): Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago ACE Center will focus on understanding the repetitive behavior seen in ASD. Known as "insistence on sameness," this behavior is a hallmark of ASD. Examples of insistence on sameness consist of wanting to wear the same clothes every day, taking the same route to work or school, or becoming fixated on certain subject matter, such as buildings or cars. Center researchers will focus on genetic factors as well as brain chemicals and brain functions that could account for repetitive behaviors in people with ASD, and test whether genetic differences influence how individuals respond to certain medications intended to reduce the occurrence of these behaviors.

— Eric Courchesne (University of California, San Diego): Researchers at the UCSD ACE Center also will use brain imaging to track brain development in children believed to be at risk for autism spectrum disorders. Unlike other ACE program projects, which will attempt to identify forerunners of ASD in the siblings of children with ASD, the UCSD researchers will study infants who have been referred by their physicians. The physicians will make the referrals on the basis of a checklist of behaviors that are similar to those of older children with ASD. The primary goal of this center is to identify brain or other physical differences that might predispose a child to autism. The UCSD Center will collect some of the first information ever obtained on how the brains of very young children with autism process and respond to information.

— Geraldine Dawson (University of Washington). Researchers at the University of Washington ACE Center will seek to identify genes and other potential factors that may predispose an individual toward ASD, as well as factors that might protect against them. In addition to genes, the researchers will try to determine the risk of ASD by examining communication difficulties, early behaviors, patterns in the sounds babies make, and brain structure and activity patterns. Researchers will also try to determine whether certain types of interactions between the parent and baby can decrease the chances for ASD.

— Nancy J. Minshew (University of Pittsburgh): Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh ACE Center will study how people with ASD learn and understand information. Research shows that the ability to organize information into categories is critical to language development. The Pittsburgh researchers will use brain imaging techniques to study how infants at risk for autism and toddlers diagnosed with the disorder place information into categories. Researchers will also use brain imaging techniques to study which parts of the brain are activated in people with and without ASD when processing information and emotions.

— Joseph Piven (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill): In hopes of identifying brain differences in children who develop ASD, researchers at this Network of sites operating under the direction of the University of North Carolina will use brain imaging techniques to compile images of the brains of very young infants. Some of these children may go on to develop ASD. Their brain images will be compared to those of other infants, to identify differences between children who develop autism and those who do not. While previous studies have documented the enlarged brains often seen in ASD patients, little is known about the abnormal processes during early brain development in children with ASD. The research could offer new insights that lead to earlier diagnosis of ASD.

— Marian D. Sigman (University of California, Los Angeles): Researchers at the UCLA ACE Center will seek to understand how ASD affects the ability to communicate. The researchers will try to find clues to language-related communications problems by looking at genes, behavior and brain structure and functioning. The researchers also are interested in disorders that affect the mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are brain cells that become active either when a person performs an action or watches the action performed by someone else. When many patients with ASD are asked to imitate behaviors, images of their brains show that their mirror neurons are less active than those of other people. The researchers will try to stimulate the mirror neurons of people with ASD by having them follow a set of instructions to complete a task.


Andrew said...

Consolidating our efforts is so important if we are to:
1) ever find the cause and cure to autism
2) allow for objective looks into behavior and how behavior is impacted by organismic variables.

Maybe now the wacky speculation about causation and the constant inferrences about behavior (without objective measures) will cease and we can truly move forward.

As an afterthought, I was able to see Michael Courchesne speak and really enjoyed him.

Michael Goldberg said...

Thanks Andrew for your thoughtful comment.

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